Close Rewrites 'The Wife' Role

The Wife
(Sweden/UK/USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Björn Runge, Writ. Jane Anderson
Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Stark, Harry Lloyd
Glenn Close stars in The Wife
Photo by Graeme Hunter / Sony Pictures Classics
It’s hard to imagine a better showcase for Glenn Close’s talents than The Big Chill, Fatal Attraction, The World According to Garp, Dangerous Liaisons, or Damages, but The Wife might be the finest example of her strength as an actress. That might be the case because The Big Chill, Fatal Attraction, The World According to Garp, Dangerous Liaisons, or Damages are all great pieces of film and television. The Wife, unfortunately, is not a good film, but Glenn Close is great in it. She’s reason alone to see the film as she elevates every scene in which she appears with subdued, repressed rage. Close’s performance in The Wife is a masterclass in subtle, nuanced acting.

Close downplays the role of Joan Castleman brilliantly and rewrites the part of the long-suffering, subservient wife. The titular “wife” in this case is the better half of Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce, who relishes the part of the loutish husband), a man lauded for his novels that some people claim have transformed the very concept of literary prose. Joan stands by her husband’s side and is all happy smiles as he receives news that he is to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Everyone marvels at how great Joe is and how proud Joan must be of him. She plays the part well, Joan, as she toasts her husband and soaks in the plaudits.

Beneath the happy surface, however, brews resentment. The Wife—and this is where the film often falters—flashes back to the past and explores the early courtship of Joan and Joe, played by Annie Stark (Close’s daughter) and Harry Lloyd (no relation). Joan is at a girls’ college with dreams of becoming a writer and Joe, her dashing professor, thinks she’s pretty good. Cut to a clumsy affair and a few readings, and Joan’s talent is more than apparent. However, as a boozy alumnus (Elizabeth McGovern) tells her, there’s no future for women in writing. It’s a man’s world then just as, sadly, it still is now as mastheads and publishing houses have mostly males in top positions deciding which voices and stories are worthy of publication.

The Wife adapts the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer (Surrender, Dorothy), which isn’t an especially great book to begin with but has a little more finesse in the way it folds the past and present. There’s a lot of great material that doesn’t make the cut (an inevitability in adaptation), like Joe’s boorish resentment of a colleague who survived the Holocaust and had hard pain to channel into literature or the other, more humorous story of the walnut that inspired the book that launched Joe’s career. (It’s a great scene where Joe’s ex-wife confronts Joan and hurls a walnut at her forehead, branding her with a nut-sized scarlet letter.) Much of what Anderson omits in the adaptation are the nuggets that speak to Joan and Joe’s respective strengths and weaknesses as both writers and people. Although the one fine stroke of Jane Anderson’s adaptation is the addition of a scene of Joe’s infidelity, betrayed by a walnut that Joan discovers just as she’s ready to break, that nicely speaks to how little he knows of the books that carry his name.

It’s not that the past scenes of The Wife are especially bad—actually, some of them are quite good as Stark introduces herself as a natural performer. There’s just a bluntness to function of these scenes within the film. They don’t give the audience much credit. They just lay out everything that Close reveals so masterfully and imperceptibly behind her feigned pride for Joe.

There’s one scene in particular that demonstrates how much Close does with this role and how sometimes the best delivery for any artist to do more with less. The scene comes just over midway in the film when Joe’s wannabe biographer (Christian Slater) nags Joan into having a drink with him and he tries to tease out a confession about her literary prowess. Close simply sits there and smiles with a slightly boozy twinkle in Joan’s eye. There is so much going on behind Joan’s tightly composed mask: pride, pain, resentment, jealousy, and a yearning to be recognized for what she truly is. It’s in this scene that Close is at her best as she represses moments that might have inspired broad strokes from other stars. (And when Close goes big in the final scenes, her performance is the culmination of simmering rage that’s been building throughout the film.) Joan, a true writer, prefers to observe and listen rather than speak. Her best work isn’t creating characters in the page, it’s in the role she writes for herself: a woman with far more complexity than any man could imagine.

The Wife is now playing in limited release.